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Supreme Court allows Idaho to offer emergency medical abortions

Protesters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on April 24, 2024, as it hears arguments on whether an Idaho abortion law conflicts with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act.
SAUL LOEB
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on April 24, 2024, as it hears arguments on whether an Idaho abortion law conflicts with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, in a 6-3 opinion, temporarily allowed abortions in medical emergencies in Idaho. The opinion was erroneously posted on the court's website on Wednesday.

The decision reinstates a lower court ruling that temporarily allowed hospitals in the state to perform emergency abortions to protect the life of the mother, and the health of the mother.

Three of the court's conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — sided with the three liberals — Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson — in dismissing the appeal from Idaho without considering the core issues in the case. Dissenting were Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas.

But the Idaho case will no doubt put abortion back into the political limelight as a major controversy, just months before the presidential election, and it could alleviate some of the hostility to the court fomented by the decision two years ago overturning Roe v. Wade.

Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, known as EMTALA, in 1986 to prevent hospitals from refusing care for uninsured patients or dumping them on other hospitals. The law says that as a condition for receiving Medicare and Medicaid funds, hospital emergency departments must stabilize a patient whose life or health is at risk. And if the hospital can’t do that, is must transfer the patient to a hospital than can.

That was all well and good until the high court overturned Roe. Within weeks, the Biden administration issued guidance to hospitals on how to comply with the emergency care provision under EMTALA, and the Justice Department sued Idaho for barring abortions when a pregnant woman faces an emergency that poses a grave threat to her health, but not an immediate threat to her life.

The opinion did not permanently resolve whether Idaho acted within its rights, or whether the state law is pre-empted by EMTALA. Rather, by a 6-3 vote, the court retreated from a previous ruling that had temporarily allowed Idaho's law to take effect, meaning that emergency abortions were illegal in the state if they were to save a mother's health, but not her life.

The opinion dismissed the case as "improvidently granted" and returned it to the lower courts for further litigation. The case will now return to a federal district court judge, who had temporarily blocked the Idaho law from going into effect.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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